Interview with Roger Allam, part one: Mozart or Wagner?

Roger Allam has just finished playing John Christie, the founder of Glyndebourne opera house, in The Moderate Soprano. Christie was a quite extraordinary man with very passionate opinions about opera: Wagner he found sublime while deeming Mozart ‘samey.’ In this, the first of two interviews, we wanted to find out just how much actor and character might agree…

What’s your favourite opera?

I can’t quite decide between Rigoletto and Peter Grimes. Rigoletto, which I saw a lot.

The famous Jonathan Miller production at English National Opera, which had an Italian Mafia kind of setting, worked absolutely brilliantly. And I had a recording of it, an old recording with Joan Sutherland– just magnificent.

And there’s certain bits of it, the things that opera does so well- which you can’t do in speaking theatre- is compress things so that people are singing, like in certain famous Mozart bits where there might be four or five people singing on stage, and it all intermeshes and they repeat the same thing but you hear it differently and so it becomes very concentrated- and there are marvellous bits in Rigoletto like that. And I think I was also very struck by the story of it, this father and this daughter.

Or, Peter Grimes, which I saw at a very young age on television. I love Benjamin Britten because he’s one of the few people who can write really, really well for the English language. The English language is very difficult to sing, actually, in that classical way- it’s hard. He writes brilliantly for it.

So, I’m cheating because I’m saying it’s between Rigoletto and Peter Grimes.

Which opera would you recommend for a beginner? (@hedgehogloves)

Something with a really good story. Something by Verdi, probably- Rigoletto again or Traviata.

You mentioned having watched Peter Grimes on the television. Do you think that more opera should be shown on the TV?

In costume as John Christie

For a lot of people, the first time you see a lot of things is on TV. Some of my favourite movies- classic American movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s- I saw on TV, because especially when we had very few channels over here, BBC 2 and then Channel 4 when it started would do seasons of Film Noir, or Fred Astaire musicals- whatever. And that would be the first time you’d see those movies and then you might get to see a showing of them on a big screen.

So it’s great when things are shown on television, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same seeing opera on television because you’re not in the room and you don’t hear the sound. I remember sometime in the mid-‘70s, when Colin Davis was the conductor at Covent Garden, and he used to be conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and therefore used to do the promenade concerts, which were always very cheap, rather like The Globe, everyone stood in this big groundlings bit, and also in a big gallery and I used to go to those a lot when I was a teenager and in my early twenties- and then he took over Covent Garden and did a similar thing there- ripped out all the stall seats and I remember going and sitting on the floor of the stalls of Covent Garden and hearing Pavarotti sometime in the mid-70s, probably when he was at his absolute best, doing Tosca. Just to be in the room and hear Pavarotti sing a high C, it just takes your breath away. The sheer energy and commitment and beauty and power and everything, it just makes it so that you can barely breathe. It’s astounding. And so, it’s not the same as being in the room, but it’s good seeing it on the tele.

Mozart or Wagner?

That’s really hard, isn’t it? I think there’s something in the play that explores the huge dangers of Wagner; not just about fascism but about emotion, in that if you’re feelings about what a relationship should be is that someone is getting a sword from a river or taking the Rhine gold or hammering something on an anvil and all that kind of Game of Thrones stuff- Jonathan Miller famously called Wagner “musical Tolkien.” There is something utterly glorious about it when you see it done well, but it’s also kind of overwhelming. It’s not real life.

A few years ago I did a gig at the Manchester International Festival with the Halle Orchestra (The Madness of the Extraordinary Plan, 2011) and I was playing Wagner in this little curtain raiser, and I tell you, if you’ve got an 80 piece orchestra behind you playing Wagner you think “yes, yes! Why don’t I have this accompanying me round in life? This massive orchestra making everything I do hugely important. The soundtrack to my every request.”

And so, I wouldn’t say I was a Wagnerian. And I think the play shows is that the thing about life is that the more ordinary things that Mozart dramatized in, say, The Marriage of Figaro, certainly, are worthy of being given some sense of the sublime as well through that incredible music and that wonderful way that opera does, as I was describing earlier, concentrating. The fact that someone can say “I love you,” and they’re singing it and they have to repeat it, and because it has this astounding music it takes on something else than just someone standing on stage saying “I love you.”

I think it depends on your mood. Wagner’s not terrific at comedy- Wagner for certain moods, Mozart for others, I would say. But Mozart for most of life, I think. Mozart less dangerous.

Unlike the majority of musicals, Les Misérables is sung in its entirety- do you think it might have in common with opera than traditional musicals in some ways?

I always liked musicals that were spoken and then went in to song and dance, but then the musicals I liked were musical comedy, rather than something like Les Mis which is something else- certainly not comedy. Musical melodrama. And therefore in Les Mis, though there’s loads of wonderful tunes, sometimes the stuff that should be spoken I kind of think why aren’t we speaking it? So it’s like musical melodrama- which a lot of opera is as well. Like Puccini, a lot of Puccini is like that.

Indeed, when I was doing Les Mis Jeremy Irons came to see it and he gave Patti LuPone a present of a 19th Century theatre programme of a guy who ran a theatre in Holborn- an actor manager- who did an adaptation of Les Misérables. He’d written it, directed it and was starring in it and there was a list of scenes in the programme and you look at the list of scenes and it takes exactly the same dramatic choices as the musical did. It hugely expanded the barricade scene because in the novel- the novel’s the thickness of a couple of bricks- and the barricades is more of a Ryvita, a crisp bread, in the brick. And of course, if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a barricade set, you want to see the money.

He was only doing what Irving did with Shakespeare, in a way. And another thing is that it hugely expanded the love stories. And that was interesting to me, because it showed what the function of that kind of musical was.

John Christie had very particular (or perhaps peculiar) thoughts on how people must dress to attend the opera. Can you “tie a bowtie which will still have dignity at bedtime,” as he put it?

I could relearn how to do that, because when I was filming Inspector Morse (‘Death is Now My Neighbour’) I had to tie a bowtie on camera, while speaking. I feel confident that yes, I would be able to do it with practise. The bowtie I’ve got now was tied by a brilliant man when I had to present an Olivier Award. This is what happens, I got given an evening suit- a really, really nice evening suit- and a tie, and he tied the tie and you can hook it up ‘round the back and adjust it, but it’s tied.

If you could set up a festival of your own, as Christie did, what would it be a festival of? Jenni (@jay_eagle)

I think what I’d try to do is set up a festival somewhere very unlikely because the good thing about festivals is that for a short period of time they inject a kind of life into a place and when I was at the RSC one of the loveliest jobs I did was their regional tour in 1983, travelling round this moveable auditorium which played in schools and leisure centres. A production of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There were certain places we went to, places in Yorkshire and Lancashire, mining towns, places like that, and played community schools. It had this incredible effect. Briefly, it energised the place where we were playing and excited people. And so, I think if I did a festival I’d want to do something like that in a place that is in some way deprived of the kind of culture that a festival might bring to it- although that might be seen as somewhat patrician, I don’t know.

Roger Allam as Mercutio © Joe Cocks
As Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet

There was a particular time when we played a community school in a mining town in Yorkshire and at the end of the week we’d been there when the auditorium was being dismantled and the set was being taken down and there were some teachers crying and we asked them what the matter was. They’d really taken care of us; there was nothing there but they’d made sure that a club was open across the road from the school so that we could have a sandwich and some soup and something to drink after the show because there was nothing in the town. And they said “you have no idea of the efforts we had make to raise the money to get the Royal Shakespeare Company here for a week and the political struggle that that took within the town.” It was packed and we had standing ovations every night- not that that matters, really. But they said, “you have no idea of the effect it’s had on the school. The whole school is vibrating and buzzing with this experience and the town is as well.” And you think, well that’s just fantastic.

So somewhere like that I would do a festival, somewhere that needs a festival to energise it- because I think that’s what festivals can do. What the festival is of, in a sense doesn’t matter. I mean, theatre’s great in a sense, because it’s an event that people go to and they have an experience, so something theatrical is obviously great in that sense, so I guess it would be something like that. You don’t want to be patronising in any kind of way because there’s a lot of vibrant culture that goes on everywhere that doesn’t require people to come in and say “oh look, I can do this for you.” But that experience for me, my early experience of touring with political theatre and with the RSC, when you go into something where there isn’t much available, you suddenly discover that there’s a hunger and an interest.

In your experience, how would you distinguish between ‘political’ theatre from the rest?

One uses these words so generally, because everything is ‘political’- everything has some kind of political resonance to it. But when I started doing political theatre, which was my first job, it was a period in which there were a number of theatre companies in this country who had an agenda that was political as well as aesthetic- there was a fairly long tradition of that.

There’s Joan Littlewood, for example. She was of Gielgud and Olivier’s generation but she was from a working class background in Lambeth and she was a nightmare, personally, in lots of ways, and horrible. But, extremely politically committed before the second world war and she moved to Manchester and with the great Ewan McColl- a communist play and song writer- started doing political theatre. They were hugely influenced by Laben- the whole movement technique- and music and taking theatre into working class communities. And Joan Littlewood eventually came down to London and started the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, moving there in the 50s when it was practically derelict and did a lot of sensational stuff there, the kind of things a festival might be able to do.

Congratulations to Jenni for winning the #AskAllam competition with her festival question. To find out more about Roger’s thoughts on opera, he speaks about the topic more in this interview for The Telegraph. Check back for part two of our interview tomorrow…

2 thoughts on “Interview with Roger Allam, part one: Mozart or Wagner?

  1. A wonderful interview. Rogers description of the teachers joy and sorrow when he was working for the RSC brought tears to my eyes.


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